Omega-3 fatty acids are most commonly derived from fish oils, including tuna and salmon, and they have been linked to numerous health benefits. But now, a new study suggests that having higher levels of omega-3 DHA is associated with better sleep.

The researchers, from the University of Oxford in the UK, have published results of their study in the Journal of Sleep Research.

They conducted their research in 362 children from the UK between the ages of 7 and 9 years old, who were not recruited based on sleep problems.

According to the study, sleep problems in children are associated with poor health and behavioral and cognitive problems, the same health issues associated with deficiencies of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.

As such, the team investigated whether taking 600 mg supplements of omega-3 DHA would improve sleep.

To begin, the team had parents and carers rate their child's sleep habits during a typical week, which revealed that 40% of the children had clinical-level sleep problems, including resistance to bedtime, anxiety about sleep and waking in the middle of the night.

Wrist sensors were then fitted to 43 of the children with sleep problems to monitor their movements as they slept over 5 nights. Additionally, the team recorded levels of omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids in the children, using fingerstick blood samples.

Children in omega-3 group experienced fewer sleep disturbances

Though previous studies have suggested associations between poor sleep and low blood omega-3 levels in infants and children with behavior or learning difficulties, the researchers say to their knowledge, this is the first study to assess links between sleep and fatty acid status in healthy children.

Results of the study revealed that, compared with the children who took the corn or soybean placebo, children who were taking daily omega-3 supplements experienced nearly 1 hour more sleep each night.

Additionally, they experienced seven fewer walking episodes per night, compared with the placebo group.

The team also found that fewer sleep problems are associated with higher ratios of DHA in relation to the long-chain omega-6 fatty arachidonic acid (AA).

Lead study author Prof. Paul Montgomery says:

"To find clinical level sleep problems in 4 in 10 of this general population is a cause for concern. Various substances made within the body from omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids have long been known to play key roles in the regulation of sleep."

"For example," he adds, "lower ratios of DHA have been linked with lower levels of melatonin, and that would fit with our finding that sleep problems are greater in children with lower levels of DHA in their blood."

Study limitations give cause for further research

Still, the team says further studies are needed, given the small number of children involved in the pilot study, and they need to use objective sleep measures utilizing further monitoring with wrist sensors.

Another limitation of the study includes not collecting a wider range of demographic variables associated with sleep outcomes. For example, waist circumference could have been taken into account.

Also, the children from the study were not selected for sleep problems, so the results cannot be generalized to include a "clinically referred population."

However, the use of fingerstick blood samples allowed objective measurement of fatty acid status in the blood, which is a definite strength of the study.

The researchers conclude their study by noting that "this randomized trial does suggest that children's sleep can be improved by DHA supplements and indicates yet another benefit of higher levels of omega-3 in the diet."

Medical News Today recently reported on a study that suggested the discovery of a brain switch that says it is time to sleep.